D-Day+ 65 years: Obama set to make Normandy landing
Veterans still make their way back - and the locals still thank them for their role in a decisive battle for the Continent.
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Bill Coleman, a staff sergeant from the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne – the so-called "Band of Brothers" – received the Legion of Honor in Paris on Friday. He first visited Paris under very different circumstances, as a guest of the German Army.Skip to next paragraph
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Staff Sgt. Coleman parachuted into Normandy just after midnight on June 6, but only found out after the war that he landed 17 miles north of the right landing point.
"We were spread all over," he says. "We were mad as hell when we found out all the pilots were 18 and 19 years old. We came in with planes hitting each other, no navigation lights, chaos, everyone was shouting."
Coleman's unit squabbled and split into smaller groups. He fought for a week, ran out of ammunition, then got ambushed with five others soldiers, two of whom died.
"The Germans lined us up on a wall, but then they didn't shoot us. The order was cancelled. They wanted us for propaganda," Coleman recalls. "We were taken to Paris and marched down the Champs Elysees with our hands up. Ironically, our butts were saved because of German propaganda! I was moved to four different prison camps and ended up pulling bodies out of the rubble in Dresden."
Passing time offers new perspectives
Historians say some of the most common public misconceptions about the battle for Normandy are that it was over shortly after D-Day, that the German troops were sub-par, or that once the Allies got a foothold in Normandy, the Germans fought poorly because they thought that with a second front opening to match the fight with Russia in the East, the war was lost.
Emmanuel Thiebot, historian at Memorial Center for History museum near Caen, says Allies did not expect the kind of resistance offered by the Germans.
In his plans, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery expected to take Caen by the evening of June 6. Yet it was not until July 9 that allies took half of Caen. Only on July 20 did they take the other half.
"The Allies weren't expecting such resistance. There was a large difference between the Allied plans and what happened," Mr. Thiebot says.
To take Caen, the Allies bombed the city with terrific force, killing several thousand French residents.
But most historians, including Thiebot, disagree with Mr. Beevor's charge that the bombing was tantamount to a war crime.
Allied planes were trying to bomb bridges, but instead of flying in along the path of the river, which would have gotten them shot down, the pilots came in over the city, but with little accuracy.
"War crimes would mean a targeting of the city or civilians," says Thiebot. "The bombing was a side-effect of the war strategy, not a targeting."
Nonetheless, he adds, "Asking new questions is always a good thing in history … for many years these were taboo subjects."
History still raw for some
Other taboos being broken include the bad behavior of Allied soldiers toward local Normans, and the killing of POWs.
"Germans did kill war prisoners, but for years, no one ever talked about the German POWs killed by Allies," Thiebot says. "Just as, for many years, no one talked about the rapes by Allied soldiers and their coarse behavior toward townspeople, a contrast with German troops, who were under orders to be correct."
Veteran Coleman, of the 506th, affirms that Allies did kill German prisoners.
"We didn't have anywhere to put them, and we couldn't keep them," he says. "It was probably right not to talk about this at the time."
Pvt. Louis Venditti of the 101st Airborne, from South Chicago Heights, is back in Europe for his first time in 65 years. He fought the Normandy campaign, then was wounded in the Netherlands. Does he still think about the war?
"It's my history," he says, sporting a jacket that gives the names of the Normandy towns he helped liberate. "I think about it every day. I jumped six hours ahead of the landing, and I spent six terrifying hours not knowing what was happening. No matter where you turned, there was a German. I never came back. Sometimes I talk about it. There's not many of us left now, though."